The Fear of Islam in Tennessee Public Schools

Concerns about religious indoctrination have emerged in several overwhelmingly white, Christian counties. Why?

Worshipers attend midday prayers at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (Mark Humphrey / AP)

Williamson County, Tennessee, embodies demographic stereotypes about the South: The county just south of Nashville is overwhelmingly white, Christian, and Republican. But this fall, a curious controversy emerged there. Parents and school-board members have voiced worries about alleged Islamic indoctrination in the public schools.

In seventh grade, kids study world geography and history, including a unit on “the Islamic world” up to the year 1500 A.D. “Williamson County parents and taxpayers have expressed concerns that some social-studies textbooks and supplemental materials in use in Tennessee classrooms contain a pro-Islamic/anti-Judeo- Christian bias,” one school-board member, Beth Burgos, wrote in a resolution. She questioned whether it’s right to test students on the tenets of Islam, along with the state and district’s learning standards related to religion. She also said the textbook should mention concepts like jihad and not portray Islam as a fundamentally peaceful religion. “How are our children to reconcile what they’re seeing happening in the Middle East when they’re not even exposed to the radical sects of Islam like ISIS?” she said at a working meeting in mid-October. (Burgos did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.)

In interviews, a number of parents and school-board members used the word distraction to describe the local debate over “Islamic indoctrination.” “We have a shortage of bus drivers,” said a school-board member, Robert Hullett, at that October working meeting. “We have a problem with substitute teachers. We have things that are affecting our kids right now, and we're fooling around with this.”

Ultimately, the resolution was withdrawn, but Islam and education continues to be a topic of discussion. This week, the local chapter of Glenn Beck’s nationwide advocacy organization, the 912 Project, is hosting a townhall about it. Other Tennessee counties are talking about this, too. In October, the school board in Maury County, which borders Williamson, submitted a resolution to the State Board of Education questioning whether basic knowledge of world history “requires the depth of study of the underlying contents or tenets of world religion to the extent that the State currently requires in sixth and seventh grade social studies, especially given the impressionable nature of students’ ages during such grades.” The resolution also called for units covering religion to be moved to high school. In White County, farther east, a group that calls itself Citizens Against Islamic Indoctrination placed an ad in the local paper, the Sparta Expositor, featuring all-caps text: “ISLAMIC INDOCTRINATION IS IN SCHOOLS ACROSS OUR STATE AND OUR NATION,” it read, inviting parents and citizens to attend a town-hall meeting with a self-identified Muslim convert to Christianity. It also featured this graphic:

Sparta Expositor

Partially in response to similar concerns raised across the state earlier in the summer, the state’s department of education decided to move up its regularly scheduled review of learning standards to January 2016—two years early, according to Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s commissioner of education. It’s not clear what they’ll find, but the move sends a clear message: This is a politically potent anxiety in the state of Tennessee.

In Williamson County and elsewhere in the United States, people are experiencing real fear about Islam. They are scared of ISIS, and they don’t know what to make of religiously motivated terrorism. At one of those October meetings, a seventh grader at Heritage Middle School—who started by clarifying that she is “almost 13 years old”—said she is concerned about her social-studies lessons. "I am being taught in class that Islam is a peaceful religion, yet there are many historical and modern-day examples of violent killings and persecution in the name of Allah and Islam," she said.

Above all, the public-education system has an obligation to this 12-year-old girl: to teach her how to read the news and understand it; to prepare her to sort through truths and untruths about world religions; to ensure she can navigate complicated questions about ideology and violence. The question, though, is whether this kind of campaign against “Islamic indoctrination” in classrooms actually helps kids, and their parents, grapple with their fear and uncertainty in a constructive way—and whether these are plausible concerns in an overwhelmingly white, Christian place like Williamson County.

* * *

The debate over “Islamic indoctrination” in schools hasn’t just been happening in Tennessee. In April, a high-school history teacher in Union Grove, Wisconsin, allegedly assigned her students to write a five-paragraph essay from the perspective of an American Muslim. In response, the American Center for Law and Justice, a D.C.-based legal nonprofit founded in 1990 by the evangelist Pat Robertson, wrote a letter to the school’s principal, advising him that this task violated students’ First Amendment rights. “This assignment is problematic because it required the students to adopt and adhere to Islamic religious activity and viewpoints,” wrote Carly Gammill, a senior litigator at the organization. “By requiring students to engage in and adopt a Muslim lifestyle, Union Grove is advancing a particular religious viewpoint.”

Gammill and the ACLJ have also been involved in the Tennessee cases, although the firm does not provide money to support particular issues or candidates in school-board elections and does all of its work pro bono. The organization claims it has been contacted by 7,000 Tennesseans about the way Islam is taught in social-studies classrooms. In response, it filed an open-records request with the state in September to be able to review lesson plans and other school materials. The request was later withdrawn.

“The ACLJ has become known as the place to call if your child is having an issue and … religion is being taught in what seems like an inappropriate manner,” said Gammill in an interview. She said the organization tracks First Amendment violations related to all religions, but most concerns tend to be about Islam. “All that these students are being taught is that Islam is entirely a peaceful religion, and that they peacefully colonized—I think we know historically that that is not entirely accurate,” she said. “It is very difficult to attribute ill intentions when you don’t have all of the facts. But it certainly raises questions about who’s behind this, and is this agenda-driven?”

“We have a shortage of bus drivers. We have a problem with substitute teachers. And we're fooling around with this.”

To understand the concerns Gammill, Burgos, and others have raised, it’s helpful to understand where Williamson County’s learning requirements and resources come from. Roughly once every six years, the state reviews its set of learning standards for different grades and subjects—basically, what a student should know by the time she reaches the end of each school year. (Right now, in Tennessee, some of those standards are drawn from the Common Core, but not for social studies—the Common Core only informs the standards for math and language arts.) On a separate six-year cycle, the state reviews possible textbooks that schools can use and puts together a list of recommendations. Drawing on these recommendations, districts like Williamson County develop their own set of learning standards and choose what textbooks they want to use and purchase, often in consultation with teachers. Ultimately, teachers decide how to design their day-to-day curricula and how to use the textbooks—they have control over their lesson plans and assignments.

The concerns about “Islamic indoctrination” in Williamson County involve nearly every part of this process. In her October resolution, Burgos wrote that social-studies classes should cover all world religions equally, “except to the extent necessary to accurately reflect the Judeo-Christian heritage expressed by our Founding Fathers.” She argued that students should not be tested on their knowledge of religion, meaning that the state wouldn’t be able to measure whether middle-school students had met its learning standards for the religion components of sixth- and seventh-grade social studies. And during a school-board meeting, she questioned the textbook used by the county, alleging that it includes disproportionate coverage of Islam compared to other religions and omits historical facts about Muslims persecuting and converting others.

“In Williamson County, I can say, without any hesitation at all, that there is no slant toward Islam in our curriculum or in our teaching,” said Tim Gaddis, the county’s assistant superintendent of teaching, learning, and assessment, in an interview. He said the textbook does not mention Islam more than Christianity and Judaism, and all teachers are trained to talk about religion in historical and cultural terms, rather than spiritual or theological ones. But perhaps more importantly, there just isn’t a lot in the curriculum about religion, period.

“All of our middle schools … covered [the Islamic World] unit in a week this year,” Gaddis said. “It’s a survey course—you don’t get deeply into anything when you’re going from earliest civilizations all the way through the fall of Rome.”

In the absence of Muslim neighbors, it’s easier to see those who practice Islam as fundamentally foreign.

Some of the concerns about Islam in Williamson County have been about the way individual teachers make assignments and lesson plans, allegedly framing Islamic beliefs as truth, rather than part of culture or history. This was the charge the ACLJ raised in Union Grove, Wisconsin. Gaddis said he’s seen rumors of those kinds of assignments floating around the Internet, but it’s simply not something that’s happening in the county. “We would know,” he said, referring to the county superintendent’s office. “We’re in Williamson County, Tennessee. Our population of our county is overwhelmingly Christian, and our teachers reflect that. So the concept that anyone is trying to convert someone to Islam through some means is not only not true; it’s difficult for me to understand where something like that could even come from.”

It’s a fascinating question: How has Islamic indoctrination become a point of controversy in a county that’s chock full of churches? On one level, the concerns are about substance, such as whether Islam is being taught accurately and in proportion to lessons about other religions. But these questions seem to hint at something deeper and darker: fear. Perhaps that fear is all the more powerful in a place like Williamson County because the religion is largely an abstraction. In the absence of Muslim neighbors, it’s easier to see those who practice Islam as fundamentally foreign, and to elide their faith with violence.

Still, those who fear Islamic indoctrination in the county are likely a minority; at the very least, they don’t represent the views of many who live there. In 2014, a group of four moms started blogging on a website and Facebook page called Williamson Strong. Although they have pushed back on many of the initiatives proposed by the county’s relatively new school board, they have recently focused on challenging the anti-Islamic indoctrination campaign. Two of the founders, Jennifer Smith and Kim Henke, said they’ve been attacked for this and other issues. “We’ve been accused of not being Christian enough, not being Republican enough,” Smith said. And: “working for Obama, working for George Soros,” Henke added. “I’m also a solstice-worshipper—that’s one I’ve gotten, too.”

Smith said she has recently heard from a lot of parents about the Islamic indoctrination debate, and many have said they don’t want Williamson County Schools to promote any kind of religious values, Islamic, Christian, or otherwise. “It’s not the school’s job to teach my kids religion. It’s my job,” she said. “And it’s my decision where I want to go to church, or whatever faith I want to believe in or not believe in.”

Over the past year and a half, the group has gotten into a lot of fights. In the spring, a board member, Susan Curlee, filed a complaint alleging that Williamson Strong was acting as an unregistered Political Action Committee. The Registration of Election Finance agreed; Williamson Strong has appealed and filed a federal lawsuit. If nothing else, this legal back-and-forth shows just how contentious the county’s school-board issues have become, particularly with the involvement of groups like the American Center for Liberty and Justice. (This is not the only national organization that has become involved in the county’s local politics. In 2014, four of the six newly elected candidates were mentioned in ads and mailers paid for by Americans for Prosperity, the political lobbying organization founded by Charles and David Koch. The organization told The Tennessean it spent $500,000 on anti-Common Core campaigns in the state in the six weeks leading up to the school-board election.)

Others in the county are concerned that the focus on “Islamic indoctrination” could reflect poorly on the community. “I have never had a parent express concern about this,” said a Williamson County school-board member, Anne McGraw, at that October working session. “We each represent thousands of families. I don’t think this represents the county that I live in and am raising my children in.” At a board meeting the next week, a junior at Brentwood High School, Connor Carroll, said he feared colleges wouldn’t look at students “from a [school] system that is moving toward a curriculum ... that is Islamophobic.” And Lane Rosencrans, a former English teacher, said "the ongoing overreach and intrusion into my classroom ultimately served as the reason why I left. … It's asinine to think that to simply regurgitate a culture's main tenets is a systemic indoctrination of their faith. To believe that it has any bearing on our own [faith] highlights the weakness in our own beliefs."

Kids who grow up south of Nashville probably aren’t going to be exposed to many other faiths in daily life.

Williamson is known for being wealthy, partly because it’s home to global corporations like Nissan (and their executives). Matt Largen, the president and CEO of the county’s chamber of commerce, spends a lot of time talking with corporate heads who are considering moving their operations or headquarters to the area. “Resolutions like this make it a challenge to recruit companies to Williamson County,” he said in an interview. He worries that these companies, which boast workforces of people from all over the world, will come to town, see headlines about fear of Islam in schools, and get second thoughts. “Our economic future is tied to how we welcome people from outside the area,” he said. “Our strongest selling point is our public-school system. If what [company executives] read time and time again in the press is [about] a district struggling with these issues, it gives the impression that there is something fundamentally wrong with this district.”

Then again, if companies are looking for a diverse, global-feeling place to move, maybe Williamson County isn’t the right choice anyway. Daoud Abudiab, a Muslim parent who has been involved with Williamson Strong, said his kids have faced discrimination in all of the schools they’ve tried, including a few in Maury County. He and his wife tried homeschooling and co-ops for a while when they were living in Columbia, Tennessee, but “after a year or so, it was: Our kids can’t play together, because we learned in Sunday school that Muslims want to convert or kill everybody,” he said. “Our only choice was really to leave that and come to Williamson County. And now, we’re faced with even public schools where our kids don’t feel welcome.”

Abudiab, too, thought it odd that anti-“Islamic indoctrination” protests have come up in an area that’s almost entirely white and Christian—rather than, for example, diverse, cosmopolitan Nashville, one county north. “You would think they would go into Davidson County, where they’re liberal and there are school teachers who are Muslim. But they’re not worried about it there; they’re worried about it where there [are] no Muslim teachers. They’re worried about it in Columbia, where there isn’t, to my knowledge, a single Muslim student, and certainly no teachers.”

On a recent Saturday morning in downtown Franklin, Tennessee, I had coffee with Abudiab, Henke, Smith, and a local pastor who is also involved in Williamson Strong. It was an unusually diverse religious gathering for Williamson County: two Christians, a non-religious person, a Muslim, and a Jew. But that’s exactly why the community’s debate over religious education in seventh-grade social studies is so urgent. Kids who grow up south of Nashville probably aren’t going to be exposed to many other faiths in daily life.

“I want to raise my children… [so they] don’t see a difference between you and me,” Smith said, gesturing at Abudiab. “Not because our skin tone is different, our religious beliefs are different—my kids just don’t see that. They’re accepting for who we are as individuals. And at the end of the day, is that what I want as a parent? Yeah.”

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